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Close William Head prison and return the land, says First Nation chief

Sc’ianew First Nation (Beecher Bay) Chief Councillor Russ Chipps wants William Head prison closed and the land returned to First Nations following the escape of two inmates who are now accused of killing a Metchosin man.
William Head Institution

Sc’ianew First Nation (Beecher Bay) Chief Councillor Russ Chipps wants William Head prison closed and the land returned to First Nations following the escape of two inmates who are now accused of killing a Metchosin man.

“The community doesn’t want it to be here,” Chipps said, citing safety concerns. “I don’t think it should be there.”

The Sc’ianew First Nation’s main community is on Beecher Bay in East Sooke, about 30 kilometres southwest of Victoria. The prison is on their territory, said Chipps.

“We’ve always wanted all our property back, everything that’s been taken from us as Beecher Bay members,” said Chipps, “and I think that this exposes the reason why [the prison] shouldn’t be there. There’s been no benefit to us.”

James Lee Busch, 42, and Zachary Armitage, 30, have each been charged with one count of first-degree murder in the death of Martin Payne, 60, the father of two adult daughters.

The pair escaped the minimum-security prison in Metchosin on July 7 last year. They were recaptured two days later by an off-duty police officer out walking his dog in Esquimalt.

Police said Payne, a provincial employee, died July 8. His truck was located on July 9 in Oak Bay but his body was not discovered in his home on Brookview Drive, about eight kilometres from the prison, until July 12.

“My heart goes out to that family,” said Chipps. “I can’t imagine.”

The prison escape and subsequent death led to questions about why violent criminals were at the minimum-security prison.

Busch had been sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole until 2025 after he pleaded guilty in 2010 to second-degree murder. Armitage was serving a 14-year sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated assault and robbery, among other charges. Armitage, who had five prison escapes, had been set for statutory release this year.

Both inmates were transferred from Mission Institution where the “sending” warden overrode a security-level assessment that would have prohibited their transfer to a minimum-security prison.

“I don’t want to be living by high-security people in a minimum-security prison,” said Chipps. He said the prison’s warden called to explain increased security measures since the escape but he wasn’t convinced. “I don’t feel any confidence at all.”

The Pacific Ocean is on three sides of the prison. In 2018, a four-metre-high double fence on one side of the institution was replaced with a 1.25-metre fence.

Chipps is incensed when he hears the prisoners “escaped.”

“They just walked around the fence; they just left when they wanted to,” he said.

In November in Western Communities court, Judge Roger Cutler in sentencing Armitage to an additional year in jail for the escape, said the two prisoners made the decision to escape July 7 while walking along the shoreline at the oceanfront prison grounds.

When Armitage appeared before Cutler on Sept. 30 in the same courthouse, the judge said he was “perplexed” and “bewildered” as to why the inmate — with five previous escapes — was at the minimum-security prison.

Chipps said William Head continues to be mocked as “Club Fed” for its seaside location and minimal security.

“Anybody that wants to escape, can, basically,” Metchosin Mayor John Ranns said on Saturday. “And so, you need the right people here.”

The Beecher Bay band has roughly 258 members and 40 houses, Chipps said.

Since the escape and now the murder charges, community members are asking what process can be used to move the prison, said Chipps.

One member believes the inmates came to her door the morning of the escape.

Having the land would help the Beecher Bay First Nation provide desperately needed housing and support facilities, he said.

Alex Bell was in William Head convicted on a firearms charge and knew Busch and Armitage. Bell, who served his sentence and now has a job, said despite the prisoners’ escape and the horrible crime they are accused of committing, he believes that inmates who work hard to get to a minimum-security prison should be allowed the chance to prove themselves.

Inmates sent to minimum security are nearing the end of their sentence and preparing for life outside prison.

“I think they kind of earned the right to be there,” said Bell. “They still have the right to prove themselves within a new society, and be able to work within the rules that the [Correctional Service of Canada] has given them.”

That this case ended so badly doesn’t negate the good work being done at the prison, he said.

It’s usually only a couple of points in ranking between medium and minimum security designations, said Bell. “The parole officer has the right to override you either way.”

Anne Kelly, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, has said an investigation was launched immediately following the escape.

All inmates classified as minimum-security were reviewed and 14 across Canada were reassessed and moved to medium security, said spokesperson Martine Rondeau in an email. It was not clear how many were moved from William Head.

“We have revised our policies to strengthen the assessment process and decision-making involving minimum-security inmates,” said Rondeau.